Tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties

Smart­phones are said to make com­mu­ni­ca­tion eas­ier, but they of­ten make it harder

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By El­iz­a­beth Heubeck El­iz­a­beth Heubeck is a free­lance writer in Bal­ti­more. Her email is

For par­ents of teenagers, it’s tougher now than ever to find out what the heck they’re up to. Not so long ago, I used to vol­un­teer — self­ishly, I’ll ad­mit — to play chauf­feur to my now-teenage chil­dren and their friends. In the pre-smart­phone era, act­ing as car­pool taxi driver to ado­les­cents used to al­low me to act as a mole of sorts.

It’s a no-brainer, re­ally. You squeeze a bunch of silly hor­mone-laden ado­les­cents into a car and, be­fore you know it, they are swap­ping sto­ries, gig­gling over trans­gres­sions and in­ad­ver­tently shar­ing with the unas­sum­ing adult be­hind the steer­ing wheel a healthy dose of what is on their minds, in­for­ma­tion they might not will­ingly share with an adult oth­er­wise.

Now, the job is all drudgery with no ben­e­fits. You sit be­hind the wheel, the kids get in the car, pos­si­bly grunt a greet­ing, and im­me­di­ately their eye­balls go to their smart­phones, teth­ered to their hands like an ap­pendage. The only move­ment comes from scrolling thumbs.

Chalk it up to a tech­nol­ogy rev­o­lu­tion like none other we’ve seen be­fore, one that’s hap­pen­ing at such a rapid clip that we’re barely able to iden­tify, let alone pon­der, the im­pact it will have long-term — on teen-to-teen re­la­tion­ships, par­ent-to­teen re­la­tion­ships, and peo­ple-to-peo­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion in gen­eral.

It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. An over­whelm­ing 73 per­cent of U.S. teenagers own or have ac­cess to a smart­phone, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 Pew Re­search Cen­ter report, com­pared to just 23 per­cent of teens in 2011. And they’re us­ing them, a lot. At last count, U.S. teenagers were re­port­edly spend­ing about nine hours a day us­ing me­dia for their per­sonal en­joy­ment, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by Com­mon Sense Me­dia. That’s more than one-third of an en­tire day.

With the rise of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween teens, ca­sual “ver­bal” con­ver­sa­tions aren’t the only thing par­ents are miss­ing out on. Smart­phones al­low teenagers to hide other things, like love in­ter­ests. Sure is dif­fer­ent than when I was young.

I’ll never for­get, as a16-year-old, fight­ing off a gag­gle of sib­lings and my mother’s quick hands in an ef­fort to reach the phone if it rang when I was ex­pect­ing, or at least hop­ing, a crush would call. If I were for­tu­nate to get to the phone be­fore any­one else and it did hap­pen to be for me, I would stretch the cord as long as pos­si­ble, duck­ing out of sight to try to se­cure a slice of pri­vacy in my crowded house. When I re­turned the phone to its place on the kitchen wall, sev­eral sets of eyes would fol­low me, com­pletely red in the face, as my mother asked me who called.

Th­ese days, I have no idea who is on the other end of my teenage chil­dren’s phone calls; or, rather, texts, Snapchats or what­ever other form of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion they hap­pen to be us­ing. Many of the mes­sages they re­ceive, so I’m told, dis­ap­pear “into the cloud” or some such place within min­utes or sec­onds of reach­ing them. And I am far too busy, and tech­no­log­i­cally in­ept, to trace their mes­sages. Plus, I fig­ure I will re­spect my teenagers’ pri­vacy un­til they give me a rea­son not to. Chances are, it’s only a mat­ter of time. In this su­per-se­cre­tive era of light­ningquick com­mu­ni­ca­tion, teens may find it easy to hide trans­gres­sions from adults un­til things re­ally es­ca­late. But with the temp­ta­tion of in­ap­pro­pri­ate “over-shar­ing” lit­er­ally at teens’ fin­ger­tips, bad be­hav­ior can ramp up, and be ex­posed, pretty quickly. To­day, it’s ex­tremely com­mon for par­ents to con­front an un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion whereby their ado­les­cent is on the send­ing or re­ceiv­ing end of a com­pro­mis­ing photo or a boast­ful message about ac­tiv­ity that’s il­licit, cruel or oth­er­wise in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

Up against the almighty smart­phone, par­ents can feel pretty pow­er­less. But we don’t have to be. I tell my kids their smart­phones are a priv­i­lege, even if they paid for them with their sum­mer job earn­ings, that can be taken away if mis­used in any way. My kids also know their cell­phone use is lim­ited based on what their fa­ther and I deem ac­cept­able. This means that dur­ing cer­tain times — in­clud­ing din­ner, lo­cal car rides and bed­time — the smart­phones stay out of reach.

Sur­pris­ingly, my kids don’t com­plain about th­ese rules. Maybe it’s be­cause they, like all teenagers, still want the op­por­tu­nity to share things with their par­ents. And it’s a lot more likely to hap­pen when they’re un­en­cum­bered by their smart­phones.


A 2015 Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey of teens be­tween the ages of 13 and 17 found that 73 per­cent had a smart­phone. Three teens carry theirs out­side the Na­tional His­tory Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., last year.

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